Tuesday, October 07, 2008

No Writing Courses, Please

On a recent blog post I mentioned advice that is often given by writing instructors and how the advice can hinder an author rather than help her. One of the reactions I received from a number of readers was to avoid writing classes. And while I don’t entirely agree with that advice, I do think writing classes should be taken with a measure of caution.

As I’m sure many will agree, writing courses can be incredibly helpful and useful. They can help you discover or break free of what’s been holding you back. They can also trap you and become your biggest obstacle. I see it all the time at conferences, on message boards, and in blog comments. Authors telling me why they can’t do something and referring back to a writing course or a critique group. Why again can’t you do it? With any creative pursuit, like writing, painting, pottery, or photography, a class can be incredibly useful in helping you learn new techniques or see things a different way. However, you need to remember that unlike accounting, these pursuits are not cut and dry. In other words, there is more than one way to write a book or paint a picture. There is rarely more than one way to keep the books (legally, that is).

So take your writing courses. Sometimes it helps to listen to what others have to say, but remember that you need to take what you learn and see first if it fits your style before running ahead and simply changing everything because your instructor said so.



Tiffany Clare said...

As writers, you'd think, over time (and after many critiques)we'd know what advice to listen to, and that which can be ignored.

I have taken courses, not many---but enough in areas where I knew my writing showed weaknesses. And half the battle is admitting you can use the help, eh?

I come from a music background. You do not become a great musician without mentors and guidance.

The same can be said for writing, only guidance can come in many different forms, from studying a writer you adore (that's DH Lawrence for me) or taking a class on creative writing (all writing is helpful in the long run, as long as you are putting pen to paper--or fingers to the keyboard) I have learned a great deal on my own, but it's been finely honed (if you will) by taking some specific courses. Like deep editing and how to do it. Like giving your words and emotional punch (can you tell I'm a fan of Margie Lawson?).

I think writers just have to remember not to lose their voice after listening to others.

A worthwhile topic!

Anonymous said...

It is actually very nice to hear something like this from an industry professional.

The reason?
So much great advice flows down through the literary help lines, that honestly, a new writer can certainly become saturated with all there is to learn and filter through.

One of the biggest issues I've seen working with other aspiring writers is the loss of that natural voice that could potentially set them apart from the rest.

Just as a ms can be edited until it no longer feels or reads natural, so too can an author's voice.

Too many rules and too many holds places on ones voice can take the life out of the writing.

And nothing is more depressing than a perfectly edited, grammtically structured, pov purified, tense and sense clarified, great story idea - that lacks any life of its own.

Take all the courses in the world, bury yourself in knowledge, but KNOW your voice and how you want to write above all else. Take the knowledge that will help and store the rest for when you need it.

I love to hear, see, feel the writers passion for their story as I turn each page. Don't let that get buried under too much editing to a perfection that is not your own.

Susan at Stony River said...

I had this same advice from an editor once. She'd pointed out something in my manuscript with a rejection, and when I thanked her I mentioned looking for a writing workshop for help. To my surprise she answered, saying, NO don't do that! Her opinion was that a workshop can do as much harm as good.

Since then, I've asked published authors outright, if they had classes or critique groups to thank for their help. Some had supportive groups they were part of, but most have said they'd rather work on their own.

Sure saves money, anyhow.

Great post topic!

Anonymous said...

I am of the opinion that the ability to tell a story comes from a place deep inside of you, it's a natural talent. Either you have it or you don't. Personally, I've never taken a class, but I have learned a lot by simply, writing...and writing some more! Stay true to your inner voice and just tell the story.

Kathleen Dante said...

I remember the one creative writing course I took in college. The instructor was a critically acclaimed, award-winning short story writer. In his esteemed opinion, the only way to write was His Way. I finished the course thinking I couldn't write because I wasn't a plotter. It took me more than ten years before I was willing to commit fiction ... and I still don't attempt short stories.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I've taken a few classes. I also support my local Writers Guild and go to the workshops and lectures.

Even say in a poetry workshop,
I've found that I can usually find some small gem that is worth putting in the memory bank.

Now if I could ownly locate the combination to the vault when I need it.

Mark Terry said...

My nephew is a senior in high school and he wants to be a writer, so he's looking for writing programs for college. My brother (a university music professor) called me up and asked me what I felt about getting a degree in writing. My response: "Ambivalent."

He laughed. He has a friend, Tobias S. Buckell, who is a novelist and freelance writer and he and his son took Tobie out to lunch and asked him the same question and he gave the identical answer: "Ambivalent."

It's not that they're worthless, although I'm skeptical about the value of an actual degree in writing. It's mostly that there are so many different paths to a writing career. Mine has been long and winding, with a degree in microbiology and 18 years of working in genetics laboratories, but the advantage I had when I actually broke into writing (fiction and nonfiction) was that I actually had something to write about and the expertise and experience to come at it in a way that makes me valuable to the marketplace.

One thing my brother, as a musician, understands, though, is that we all need to find our own way through life. So it looks like his son is looking at writing programs. For all I know, he'll meet some really connected professor who will be able to introduce him to a TV or film producer or videogame manufacture or publisher and voila!, he got something out of the program he couldn't have gotten by just writing.

Amy Sue Nathan said...

I think the key is knowing when you've had enough. If the writing teacher is good, the writer will learn and can walk away with newfound knowledge that he or she can use independently.

That should be the goal of the instructor, but many times it's simply to keep you coming back for more.

Anonymous said...

I love this post. It makes me wonder if an agent sees your writing credentials, does it help or hurt? Because I always had the feeling if you had none, it was a bad thing. No experience, no classes equals no agent. They won't even read past a query letter. HELP. Most of the blogs say they could care less about what contests you've one. So how do you break in? I know I have a winner, my test audience is begging for the next book.

Anonymous said...

"No experience, no classes equals no agent".

re: anon 9:20

I used to feel that way. I would get very intimidated by the fact that a lot of writers seemed to have degrees in literature, were teachers, etc. I was none of those...I hit the road with a rock and roll band instead of going to university...I lived life....and ya know what? It all made me who I am and one thing hasn't changed...the fact that I can tell a story. I wrote my first full ms in May, landed an agent with it in June, and she recently sold a two book deal for me to a major publishing house in NY...so take heart, anon, it can be done...but, it all comes back to your ability to tell a story. Just stay true to yourself and don't lose your voice. Oh, and persevere...there will be a load of R's before you get to where you're going...that is something you can count on...

Kathleen Dante said...

To anon 9:20, when my agent offered representation, I had no degree in literature or creative writing, I had no contest wins, I had no previous sales (not even to an epub), I had no blog nor a website. My agent didn't ask me if I did and she didn't know about that traumatic creative writing course. When she got my first contracts with NY publishers, my editors didn't ask about my writing credentials either.

Just keep submitting, and in the mean time, write that next book.

Suzan Harden said...

LOL- Dang, Jessica! Where was this column when I really needed it? Maybe the how-to-filter-criticism lesson was one I needed to learn the hard way for it to sink in.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious; what kind of "something" are authors telling you they can't do?

Kate Douglas said...

The only writing course I would recommend is one in basic technique--know how the language works so you can create your sentences with words properly spelled and grammar in place--or not. (You can't break the rules if you don't know the rules.) When I was first starting, I went to too many workshops where I was told how to write--except it wasn't the way I wrote and all that did was confuse me. I don't outline, I don't plot ahead, but I do get to know my characters so that they can tell me their story. I probably got more out of my years as a newspaper reporter than I did from all the panels and workshops on fiction that I attended--I loved doing news story interviews, so that is essentially how I get to know my characters for a fictional story. I interview them. I've also learned not to show my work to my critique partners until the story is done. I don't want any second guessing during the actual process of writing, but that's certainly not something I learned in a panel. Juliana nailed it when she said it comes down to being able to tell a story. And when you learn to tell it your way, you've found your voice.

Anonymous said...

This is anon 9:20. I just wanted to thank-you for your words of encouragement, Juliana and Kathleen. So far I've only queried once, and received rejection within twelve hours, but I have read so many posts and advice it's overwhelming. Writing is the easy part. Trying to figure out what makes the agents happy, irritates me. Some of the agents seem so snotty about it, and everyone of them have their own requirements. Sometimes I just want to skip the game, and self publish, but I realize I need to at least make an effort. I'll step up to bat some more, but it's taking away my precious writing time. P.S. the other thing I worry about is: wonder if my email gets mangled when I copy and paste, because a few of them have when I sent them to myself. It makes me want to throw up my hands and scream. Maybe I'll just keep writing for my test audience. Just kidding. Thanks again.

Jean Wogaman said...

For me, the most important learning method is through reading books written in my genre. I read tons of them, both the good and the bad, and analyze what's working and what's not.

I also read books on the writing craft. I find it's important to read more than one of these, so I can see where opinions differ and how no one authority has full possession of the gospel truth.

I have also attended conferences and workshops, but I think the most valuable resources they offer are the connection to people with similar interests and an extra boost of motivation.

green_knight said...

I'm a member of the usenet group rec.arts.sf.composition, and I would not be the writer I am today without them - but while there are several established (and some *very* eminent) writers hanging out there, it's not a class situation, it's an exchange of ideas, and anyone is able to contradict anyone else.

A group that will allow you to acquire insights into your writing process and new skills is invaluable. Sadly, I think many people teach the way *they* know worked for *them* - which can put off as many writers as it might encourage.

Anonymous said...

Writing classes can also be great ways to form a critique group. I was in a fantastic one, that not only helped me improve my writing and open up to being critiqued, but a group of 10 of us continue to meet each month and critique each other's work. In that way, it has been invaluable. We've also learned to take what any one individual with a grain of salt, since it often can be just a personal opinion. But if 2 or more people hit on the same thing, then perhaps there is something there.

For me, the writing class was a great experience that connected me to other writers (most of them pretty serious and talented ones).

Robena Grant said...

An old actor friend of mine once said, "Be careful who you get in bed with." He was of course referring to partnerships whether they be in taking on a script for a movie or writing a story and submitting for advice.

I think the same goes for writing classes, be aware of the teacher, his/her ability to teach, and their credentials. Many times the courses are a means of making extra money, or a way to promote their own books, it's not always reflective of their skill as a teacher.

The Rejection Queen said...

I won't take writing courses because I don't like the idea of learning someone else's style. I read. That's enough writing courses for me.

Anonymous said...

I am currently taking some courses through UCLA's Writers Program. They are expensive, but all of the teachers have actually published before, and you can do many of the courses online.

I have noticed some good things since I started taking them:
1) I write more frequently, often because the classes have deadlines I have to meet and this forces me to break past my procrastination.
2) I have become a better writer, mostly thanks to my classmates and not the teacher. I also found that critiquing other writers' works and suggesting improvements made my own writing better.
3) It is really nice to be among other people also struggling to write, who understand how difficult and wonderful it can be.

The way I see it, the courses can't teach you to write, but they can help you keep going during the process. Writing a novel can be a long, lonely road, and sometimes it is nice to have a fellow writer give you a hand now and then.

Anonymous said...

Yes writing courses are interesting. Actually a good writer can be born or can be made. Somebody has a wonderful talent of writig as herditory. But some famour writers are not born, they became writers with their hardworking. If there is a course teach us how to write, it is welcomable. Yes writing is an art and science. A good writer should have a good language, and so on.
Online Education

Unknown said...

I know that if you have a passion for story telling, and keep at it that anything is possible, but I also hold that you have to learn your craft (as well as learn something about the publishing industry which is why we're all reading this blog).

For some people learning craft just means brushing up on grammar. For others that means sitting in classes that pick apart writing to showcase its strengths and weaknesses and discuss how to make it better.

I agree with Geosteph that classes can lead to critique groups after the class is done. I just put a story review in the mail today for a woman who never would have had another reader if we hadn't met at workshop.

And if you don't find critique partners then taking a class is a lot like reading a book on writing; you have to take it with a grain of salt. Except with the classes at least you have deadlines that make you get down to business.

Classes may not be for you, books on writing may not be for you, this blog may not be for you, I understand, but perhaps they are.

And stop bashing the people with degrees! I'm working on my second degree in English and writing and I'm not wandering around bashing writers who learn from reading for pleasure! Perhaps your path to writing includes being a biologist or a stay at home mom or a lawyer -- my path involves teaching college freshmen composition; it's not exactly a "lofty" literary position, but it makes me happy day to day and it has become the reason I'm getting that second degree. How can you criticize me for doing what makes me happy?

MAGolla said...

Uhm, I stopped writing for over 12 years after I took a college writing course. So I seriously think it counter productive to my second career.
I've been actively writing for 7 years and still won't take a course. I'll attend retreats, conferences, read various books, and listen to other methods, but I will never take another writing course again.

Anonymous said...

And stop bashing the people with degrees! I'm working on my second degree in English and writing and I'm not wandering around bashing writers who learn from reading for pleasure!

Wow...first of all congrats on earning your second degree...um, but as far as I can see, no one is bashing people with degrees. Not quite sure where you got that idea...

nightsmusic said...

Great post! I have to say, I've read the books on how to write, have great critique partners with two different ways of coming at my writing and they've both helped me more than I can ever thank them for.

But when all is 'said and done' for me, I see one thing that stands out. I have read the 'don't use lots of adverbs, don't write long sentences, don't show - tell, don't yada yada' and then, I read my favorite author who is a top paranormal romance writer and who breaks almost every rule there is and I realize a big reason I'm drawn to her is because she writes as if she's talking to me. It's all natural, real-world dialog and descriptions and characters. Not the short sentence, dialog where you don't really need it writing I see so much of today.

I think I'll stick to that 'movie' I see in my head and just write what's playing. If the rules work when I'm done, fine, if not...oh well! At least the book will be in MY voice, with my structure and something I'm happy with instead of something to please everyone else that I no longer can stand...

Julie Weathers said...

I just finished Barbara Rogan's Next Level workshop.

I'm a little leery of most courses, but I have to say I would recommend this one to anyone who seriously wants to take their novel to the next level.

Barbara is pretty blunt about her opinions, though she isn't mean or harsh. She's just very honest and that honesty helps you see the weak spots. She also understands the writer's voice must be preserved. I guess she could be best likened to a very good voice coach. She takes your talents and hones them.

I will be back next year with either the sequel to Paladin or a new work if Paladin doesn't find a home.

I have learned over the years to be very discerning about the advice I base my changes on. If a person is truly trying to improve my work, I look at the suggestions seriously. If they are trying to make me a mirror image of them, then I politely thank them and try to remain true to the vision.

Bobby Ozuna said...

I ran into the same "problems" with a few writing groups I (almost)joined early in my writing career. The reasoning for how they critique one another's work was sincere but in the end--from an outside perspective--I thought they were hurting younger (experience, not age) writers with their advice. To me a writer's group or writer's course is like religion... You need to make sure you know what it is your looking for before you walk in the door...because if you are not careful, you never know what you make take with you...and it could, in the end, hurt you more than help you...limit you instead of setting you free!

Great post!

~Bobby Ozuna
Drawing Stories...With Words

Matthew said...

I enjoy writing classes--they're great for motivation. I must admit that I have received some rather worthless feedback at times. I've also had instructors who were a little too polite and wouldn't provide more honest criticism. But, I've also had some classes that provided exactly what was needed.

It will always depend on the instructor, writer, and classmates. Works very much the same way as a writing group.

Anonymous said...

[i]It will always depend on the instructor, writer, and classmates. Works very much the same way as a writing group.[/i]

Very true. Many years ago, I took a Writer's Roundtable college course. The teacher was self-published (a bad sign I didn't realize at the time) and didn't understand anything about the business. He didn't lay any ground rules for the class, other than we participate in the critiques and read his self-pubbed book.

We had one student there who was very negative. He didn't like anything! He also didn't know how to critique and bashed everything he didn't like. The teacher just let it happen. One student ran crying from the room, never to return.

More recently, I took a month-long online course on viewpoint. It was given by another writer, experienced but not published. We all rewrote the same scene in many different viewpoints, analyzed the difficulties with it, and commented on everyone's work. I actually ended up changing the viewpoint in my novel from third to omni because of the workshop.

But I think if anyone is thinking of paying for a college course in writing, they should ask three questions:

1. Is the teacher published?

2. If so, what books have they published (and they should not be self-published or in the National Library of Poetry)

3. Do they understand the business of publishing?

When I see complaints about writing courses, it seems like it goes back to the fact the teacher doesn't even understand the business. There's a big difference between writing a story and writing a story that people will buy.

Bobby Ozuna said...

Great points to consider for the readers of this post: "Depends on the instructors, writers and classmates..."
BUT be aware of one significant point:
Not every author who works as an independent publisher (or self-published author) is ignorant of the publishing business and how to work within the literary marketplace. Many of us choose to work on our own because we want to learn the business as much as we enjoy learning how to write. And we both know, doing something on your own...for an extended period of time...can make you an expert over time...

Take the advice people...check the credentials of the person giving the course...but in the end...like with anything we try in this world...sometimes you just have to get from it...what you can...no matter who is teaching the course...

~Bobby Ozuna
Drawing Stories...With Words